Mcqueen’s latest film Widows is a lesson in bad storytelling.

November 17, 2018

 Please NOTE: There are many spoilers in this post.....

 

A fan of Mcqueen’s work I was highly anticipating Widows as a witty feminist heist movie that would be both socially conscious and entertaining; alas, it was none of the above.

 

Based on a 1983 UK mini series, McQueen’s south side Chicago remake proves that a good director, and good acting don’t necessarily equate to a good movie if you have a contrived and unbelievable script.

 

But first let’s start with what DID work in the movie:

 

Diversity on Screen:

Watching so many diverse character’s on screen was rich and fulfilling. To see a story about women, and with a couple of women of color in leading roles was both inspiring and refreshing.

 

The Acting:

Though one of the biggest flaws in the film is the way in which most of the characters are written: without honest intentions, wishy washy unmotivated actions, and journeys without payoffs, the actors portraying these roles make the best of the material and shine, despite the script’s falsities.

 

Directorial Choices:

Mcqueen does make interesting choices that showcase his genius. Two moments that stood out  were: 1) the intro to the characters, a well executed and well edited and sound designed sequence that cut back and forth between snipits of the women prior to becoming widows, juxtaposed with the violent heist gone wrong that eventually turned them into widows. 2) Another standout directorial moment is when Mcqueen chooses to show the journey from an impoverished predominantly black neighborhood to the wealthier part of town, all while two characters talk but are never seen. This was smart because it showcased the environment as a player in the story, and because the dialogue was mediocre at best, and actually showing the characters speaking would have felt melodramatic, expository, and uninteresting, but by shooting it in this way, it forced the viewer to listen less to the dialogue and focus more on the environment in which the event was taking place.

 

Now for what DIDN’T work:

 

The Story:

The story is not only formulaic and filled with predictable tropes, but everything that happens from beginning to end is very convenient at the expense of believability and truth.

  • While Widows pitches itself as a heist movie, there is no set-up, no build up, and no pay off for the heist so it’s boring and hard to follow the character’s trials and struggle because there is simply no struggle. The viewer is thus unable to emotionally connect to the potential exciting/scary trials and tensions of a planned heist gone awry. Because the script never gives us a plan of the heist, we don’t follow the protagonists through the process of preparing to execute a plan that may/may not go as expected, instead we just see the widows running around and buying guns and vans but with no explanation of why and how they will carry out the deed. One of my favorite things about heist movies is that the planning involved builds the viewer’s expectations for the undertaking (it's like the foreplay before the action, and before the release), so by experiencing the process with the protagonists we'd immediately feel for them and want them to succeed. However, in Widows there is no mention of a plan, or a near-impossible undertaking that will keep the viewer at the edge of his/her seat rooting for the characters, instead it’s just a given that there is some sort of plan that already exists and that is never really talked about or explained, so when the heist is in full swing, it becomes a missed opportunity to have manipulated audience expectations and to take viewers on an emotional, tense filled and action packed journey. This also eliminates any sense of real/potential danger in the film which makes for two hours and nine minutes of uneventful boredom. Every scene, and bit of dialogue is structured in such a way that it misses the opportunity for any excitement, suspense, or tension.

  • There is no payoff. I attended the WGA screening of this movie last night (followed by a Q&A with Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn) and the screenwriters made sure to mention that they wanted the heist to be more “small time,” they didn't want the characters to steal $20 million dollars, but rather a smaller amount that would be divided among all of them. This comment felt more like an excuse for why Widows' stakes were low, and less of a commentary on how wonderfully effective "small time" crime movies can be. In a good "small-time crime" film, the world of the characters is so small, and the circumstances are so dire that stealing $10 could have really big consequences, and the build up could make it very compelling (and sad) to watch someone risk everything for just a little, this has been done, and can be done quite beautifully (Robert Bresson's Pickpocket comes to mind here). And, the reason there are no payoffs (or very little payoffs) in Widows is not because they’re small time desperate women, but rather because the script fails to deliver on any substantial set-up that could lead to either a great pay off, or sad/violent/disturbing disappointment. A missed opportunity for the writers to manipulate audience emotional connection to the story and its characters.

  • Another big issue with the film is that entire storylines are built up in Act I and then just dropped and unexplored by Acts II and III. An example of this is the story of Jamal Manning (played by Tyree Henry), who is painted as a crooked politician who serves as the catalyst/threat in the story that leads Veronica (Davis) to pursue this heist. However, while he does threaten her in Act I, Jamal’s pursuit of this money falls by the wayside sometime in Act II, and Veronica’s intention and reason for “going on this heist journey” (to pay back Jamal the money her husband stole, and to split the rest among the widows) never gets a resolution. She never has to face Jamal about the money, Jamal never comes back to claim the money, Jamal’s entire storyline and intentions which seem to take center stage in Act I are barely mentioned or addressed by Act III. So the script sets up the audience expectations for really high stakes: If Veronica doesn’t pay Jamal back the $2M then terrible things will happen to her (and to her dog?!?!) but then Jamal never comes back to collect on his threat, he never again inquire about the money that is owed to him, this storyline never really goes anywhere except on tangents and weak socio-political commentary (but we’ll address this later).

 

The Characters:

Character choices and decisions feel unbelievable at times, and relationships are poorly developed. Intentions are weak and misleading, and characters make decisions to serve the script, rather than to serve their own journey. 

  • Secondary characters like that of Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya) are given center stage and built up in importance in Act I, only to quickly and conveniently be killed off in easy and uninspired ways as soon as they are no longer needed for the purposes of the story, misleading and confusing the audience, and missing out on opportunities for tension, suspense, threat, or action.

  • Another example of major character holes and incongruences introduced in Act I pertains to Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) and his wife Veronica (Davis). After his death, Harry leaves his wife a key, and a lock box combination, that sets Veronica on her journey. It is set up in a way that leads the viewers to believe that Harry loved his wife; so much so that after he is gone he wants her to have his most important possession - a special “notebook” that she can sell to the Mannings for a significant amount of money (although, while this notebook supposedly has worthy information that the Mannings are willing to kill for, the content of the notebook is only loosely explained, leaving audiences wondering if it's significant enough to be worth all this trouble). But I digress, while in Act I, the story leads us to be believe Harry’s intentions are to “help his grieving wife,” by Act III the story wants us to believe that now on a whim’s notice he is willing to kill Veronica for money (What doesn't make sense is - if Harry was willing to fake his own death and leave Veronica his most prized possession, then why all of a sudden is he willing to kill her for this money? Wouldn't it have been easier if he never would have left her the notebook to begin with? His intentions are so muddled and all over the place that it's difficult to take anything that happens seriously. And this is yet another example of a character choice that is imposed onto the story to force the plot along, to create a false sense of drama, and to add shock value, all the while compromising the believability of the characters on the screen.

  • The feeling of “loss: is missing from the women’s relationships to their husbands, so it’s difficult to relate to what they’re going through, or to feel their supposed pain. To make things worse, a ridiculous and absurd twist in Act III makes Veronica’s relationship to her husband feel like it was a joke all along, one with zero history, and zero emotional depth which is a contradiction to how the writers set up their relationship in Act I. When we first learn of the love story between Veronica and Harry, we are led to believe the couple shared a profound, deep connection, a complicated romantic history, they even raised a child together, and experienced the trauma of losing that child, but nothing in the set up of their love story would lead any smart audience member to believe that these characters would so quickly try to kill each other at a moment’s notice without a second thought, nothing up until this shocking (and laughable) point in the story leads the viewer to believe that these to people don't care enough about one another to think twice before pulling the trigger, so when they do, you're left with unresolved confusion. This is just one example of how character choices throughout the entire film are written purely with the intention of pushing the story along, rather than having characters make honest decisions from a raw, and human place that affect change, and lead to conflict and character arcs. The motivations, intentions and actions are confusing and completely unbelievable.

Convenient Plot Points and Plot Holes:

Script beats are conveniently put into place to push the story along. Some examples of very convenient moments in the film that account for missed opportunities for dramatic tension, struggle, and excitement include:

  • During the heist, the women’s van is taken from them (it’s not stolen, it’s taken because stolen would imply a struggle, and there is no struggle). This could have been a fantastic opportunity for action. The protagonists had a plan, the plan went wrong, and now they have to fix it and get their van back? Watching them have to figure out a plan B would have been interesting, we would have seen them struggle and be forced to figure out a solution, but instead the film cuts to them in another car chasing the van, and magically and conveniently Kaluuya’s character hits a curb/wall, and dies instantly, allowing the women to simply just take their money back. There is no confrontation with Manning, he just hits a curb and dies and BOOM! They have the money! So while the script attempted to give us a shocking twist (with Kaluuya taking the van from the widows immediately post heist) the women didn’t have to fight very hard to win their van back. They're also never chased by cops (at any point), even though there are gunshots during the heist, even though they are robbing an affluent neighborhood that likely has surveillance cameras and security guards, even though they leave loose ends at the Mulligan house (Nurse could call the cops when her patient Tom Mulligan is killed) but no, there is no one after these women. Any potential complications that could make the story more interesting are never explored. There is never a sense of fear, or urgency; on the contrary, it’s boring and uninspired, and it’s hard to relate to ANY of the main characters when we don’t see them take initiative or action, things just happen to them, and they happen fast and conveniently, as positive resolutions in favor of the main characters are forced to push the story onward.

  • Alice (played by Elizabeth Debicki) becomes a high end prostitute/call girl after her husband is killed, and conveniently (for the story), the ONE guy she starts seeing just so happens to be a building developer that can look at the blueprints (of the place the women want to rob) and tell them the exact address of the home represented in the blueprint. What are the odds?!?

  • During the heist, another wannabe obstacle presents itself that is quickly dismissed. This happens when the nurse (Robert Duvall’s caretaker) comes out of the bedroom midst robbery, at which point the widows decide to let her go back to her bedroom. In a more honest heist grounded in reality, when the stakes are supposedly this high, and these women are supposedly this desperate (and like Mcqueen explained “reckless”), when prison or death are at risk, and their children and families could be left without mothers, WHY would these women let the nurse go right back to bed after being discovered? Are they not afraid she will call the police? Are they not worried she’ll wake everyone up and they'll be caught? Apparently NOT, they just let her go back to bed, and then in an attempt to make this feel like a believable choice, one of the widows says “do you think she’ll call the police?” and another widow says “No that would be stupid” why would that be stupid? Why wouldn’t a nurse or caretaker call the police if the house she’s living in is being robbed? Why would she go back to bed like nothing is happening? Why wouldn't she take action to save herself and her patient? This is absurd!

  • Another annoying moment of convenience is when Veronica visits the fourth widow’s home and of course she brings her dog along to this woman’s house (that she’s only ever met once before) and of course she lets her dog run around this woman's house , which leads to a revelation of yet another forced shocking moment in the script.

  • They get away with it! Even though there is a witness to the murder (MAJOR PLOT HOLE), the film wraps up nicely and all the women are able to go on about their lives as if nothing ever happened.

 

The Twists:

The film is filled with twists, that feel more contrived and for shock value than as a well crafted strength that reshapes and reveals new information about the story.

 

The Social Message:

While Widows tries (really hard) to say something about feminism, it’s washed down by a lack of honest character intentions and motivations. While it tries to speak on race, gender, and social class in Chicago, it lacks any compelling correlation or relevancy between the plot and the intended subtext of the environment the plot exists in. Unlike Get Out or Blackkklansman both films which successfully mix a strong social message into their perspective genres, Widows tries really hard to “say something” but you never feel like it’s ever actually saying anything at all because it’s too busy being forced and contrived to ever feel genuine or honest. The socio political backdrop of the mayoral race is built up to “mean something” but is then dropped entirely and not honored with a cathartic resolution.

 

The Genre:

While mixing genres can be exciting, creative and refreshing (as Get Out mixed horror and social commentary, as Netlflix’s Haunting of Hill House merges horror and family drama, and as recent Marvel movies merge superhero action and comedy) it’s unclear what genre Widows wants to be. It’s not really a heist movie, because we only ever see parts of the heist, we don’t ever experience the process, planning or build up to the heist, it’s not really a drama, because other than some overly written melodramatic bits of dialogue do exist, there is zero dramatic tension throughout, and it’s not really an action movie because there is no sense of danger, there is no chase, or excitement. So then what is this? After 2 hours in the theater, after 1 hour of hearing Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn try to overly explain things, I still don’t really know what genre this film is?

 

The Sound:

This one is just a minor annoyance, but In several scenes where songs were played over dialogue the levels were off and the music coming from the bar stereo or from the record player, or from wherever, was too loud and it overpowered the character’s dialogue.

 

Overall, I give Widows 2 stars out of 5. 2 stars for its directorial choices, strong acting, and diverse representations of characters in leading roles; but otherwise not a very compelling or interesting story, and a 2hr9m journey not worth going on unless you want a lesson in bad storytelling.

 

 

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